Monday, July 19, 2010

Co-Reading Ethel Wilson

The Equations of Love / Ethel Wilson; afterword by Alice Munro.
Toronto: McLelland & Stewart, 1990, c1952.
263 p.

Over the last year, Buried in Print has been reading through all of Ethel Wilson's works as well as biographies and critical works about her. I really admire Ethel Wilson, and feel that she needs to be more widely read; she is clever and sharp and so very enjoyable. Just a few weeks ago, Buried in Print announced that she had only one of Wilson's books left to read and then, sadly, there would be no more 'new' works to discover. This sentiment was shared by me -- in fact, this was the last unread Wilson I had as well, and I have been putting off reading it for ages just for that reason. It seemed that this was the perfect opportunity to read it together. Which we did.

Conveniently, The Equations of Love is made of up two novellas: "Tuesday & Wednesday" (which Buried in Print preferred, and has already written about!) and "Lilly's Story", which by chance is the one I preferred. So pop on over to Buried in Print to read our thoughts about Mort and his wife Myrtle, the main characters of "Tuesday & Wednesday".

The topic under discussion hereinafter is "Lilly's Story". The title seems plain and straightforward, but don't be misled; with Ethel Wilson not much is just what it appears to be at first glance. Lilly's Story is certainly the story of Lilly Waller, but it is also about the story that Lilly creates about herself and for herself, and which is infinitely flexible. Buried in Print shares a excerpt from a letter Wilson sent to a friend regarding the theme of these two novellas:

Letter To John Gray, July 19, 1950

"It is curious, but both Tues. and Wed. and the W.L.F. [Lilly's Story] are, really, studies in self-deception and lies. I became much interested in this, having observed how influential deceptions (self and otherwise) are in personal, group, and national relations. Personal relations, however, came within the scope of my own story. Truth is sometimes absolute, but very often a relative matter, as we know, yet frightfully unethical (because the lies win) but so is life, very often."
Some may be inclined to call Lilly a pathological liar, but I think her powers of invention are more than a simple pathology. They come into force once the young girl Lilly (neglected child and now young woman on her own) has someone to consider other than herself. Lilly gets involved with a Chinese cook who gives her luxurious gifts of silky lingerie -- however, he is stealing it from his employers, and when the theft is discovered she flees Vancouver to keep herself from getting involved in the mess. She has an eye for making the best of things, and finds herself living with a Welsh miner. Nature takes its course and she finds herself pregnant.

The depiction of the Chinese cook is somewhat troublesome to a modern reader, but in the afterword, Alice Munro discusses how this was one of the first novels to refer to the Chinese presence in British Columbia at all, and that the depiction, while broad, is much the same as the broad strokes with which Wilson draws other characters such as the Welsh miner who is the real father of Lilly's child, or the old English Major who is her first real employer.

As Buried in Print comments:

At times I did feel as though she was challenging conventions of her time (even just at the basic level, including a life for her Chinese characters beyond their interaction with the families they worked for even if it's only acknowledged, not actually shown to the reader)... But even in that context (and doesn't it sound as though I'm simply trying to "excuse" a favoured writer for having erred?) some parts of her sketches of these characters is offensive. Or, if not outright offensive (for yes some of the other characters are defined unkindlyand broadly too), they do, at least, niggle.

All this action is just the beginning of the story, and things take off from here. Lilly realizes that she has a child to care for, and it is the making of her. She flees once again, and this time paints herself as a widow. She invents Mr. Walter Hughes, a Saskatchewan farmer from a slightly higher social standing than she is herself, and she is determined that her daughter is going to avoid the stigma of an unmarried mother and make someting of herself. Lilly's silence and power of focus on this idea carries her through her whole life; each time she sees that a situation is threatening her daughter's future, she moves instantly to change it. More stories follow, and a whole life builds up for them, one that Lilly will do anything to maintain. She has absolutely no compunction telling stories that will bring her to a place of safety & security. The repeated line "A girl's gotta live, hasn't she?" sums Lilly's attitude up neatly. She forcibly shapes her world through her stories.

The tension is slow and steady throughout the story; Wilson's eye for detail and telling gestures reveals Lilly and her motivations clearly, perhaps more clearly than Lilly sees herself. The characterization is quite intriguing, with Lilly the most developed character of all, everyone else in her life simply a tool toward her goals. Near the end of the story, Lilly has settled into a solid position and things look good for her retirement; her daughter has married well and she has lovely grandsons. It is at this point that a figure from her past reappears and she once again flings herself into motion, fleeing to Toronto and inventing a sick aunt that she has to care for.

The idea of Lilly's starting all over again tired me out -- it made me feel so exhausted for her sake, that all this work would have to be done over. Fortunately, like a cat, Lilly's flexible storytelling allows her to land on her feet. Although the ending was a bit unexpected, it seemed possible in Lilly's world that she would end up with a bit of deserved rest and comfort. And it was a comfort to know she wouldn't have to struggle too much longer -- unless of course, something else turns up to threaten her carefully constructed life story. But by the end of the story you are so swept up in Lilly's struggle that if there wasn't a kind of happy ending, Ethel Wilson might have had a reader's rebellion on her hands!

I really enjoyed this read. Lilly was a fascinating character, and she is totally transparent about the idea that one's life is a story we construct to suit ourselves. This is an idea that I've been intrigued by for a long while now, and in this story, the actual functional construction of a life story is detailed. Lilly, however much she insists on the truth of her creation, still has the sense of humour to realize that is all a construct. For example, she rides the train toward Toronto near the end of the book, and has to cross Saskatchewan:

Lilly, sitting with folded hands, looked intently at the tiny buildings of lonely farms as the train sped on and left the farms behind, disclosing more. Afar off, remote from village or train, she saw small isolated dwellings. Was it there I lived? she thought with a slight sardonic smile, or there, with Walter Hughes? She took the train guide and memorized the names of stations through which the railroad passed. At least, she knew now where she had lived, and the unfamiliar and endless prairie was her nearest familiar friend.

Walter becomes a very real figure throughout the tale, the belief in his existence by so many people nearly strong enough to create a real person. Buried in Print agrees that Walter's creation and solid reality in death was a wonderful touch:

...the way our understanding of her "husband" took on incredible, credible dimensions is great fun and goes right back to the heart of the story, authenticity and meaning. It was one of my favourite parts of the story as well: "Walter Hughes, Mr. Walter Hughes, what would Lilly do without you? In life you were nothing, not even a shade. In death you are the strong support of Lilly Waller and her pretty baby."

Another element that I liked about this story is that is firmly embedded in Ethel Wilson's fictional world. These two novellas were published in 1949, immediately after she had published her second novel, The Innocent Traveller (a wonderful book, by the way). The Chinese cook that Lilly becomes involved with works for the family of The Innocent Traveller, and there are small ties to the earlier book that anyone who has read both can trace. Quite effective!

If you haven't experienced Ethel Wilson previously, I highly recommend her. Her writing is clever and pointed, and I especially love her short stories - they suit her style so well. As this is the last fresh Ethel Wilson for me, I think I'll now have to follow the example of Buried in Print and read the biographies.

**Read more about the first story in this set of two novellas, Tuesday & Wednesday.


  1. If you can remember to check in next week, I have a post scheduled for Monday, July 26 that is a canlit syllabus with musical accompaniment. I chose Kathleen Edwards to be the partner for Ethel Wilson's Maggie from Swamp Angel.

  2. Nathalie - that sounds wonderful! I'll make sure to check it out.

  3. I'm sooooo glad we co-read this one; it definitely took some of the sting out of reading the "last" of her books. And I'm also glad that you honestly preferred "Lilly's Story" so that each of these novellas had a cheerleader (it makes me a little sad that both were not included in the U.S. publication of the day).

  4. BIP - it was wonderful to co-read this last fresh work. And I'm glad you preferred M&T - it made me look at it more closely upon rereading it. And I found the Alice Munro essay which, as you said, was illuminating.


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